Former Marine, pilot made it through living hell of Iwo Jima
By DORINE GOSS
The Daily Courier
On Feb. 19, 1945, Lee Dortsch landed with the 5th Marine Division on an Iwo Jima beach that he called “murderous.”
“It was tough. Real, real tough,” he said. “Our landing beaches were dominated by high ground. The Japanese had their heavy artillery up in Mount Suribachi, an inactive volcano, and could fire right down on us as we were going ashore.
Lee Dortsch, World War II Marine and later an Air Force pilot, relaxes at the VA hospital’s Extended Care and Rehabilitation Center.
“Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone got it there that first morning on the beach. And he didn’t even have to be there. He was in my company on Guadalcanal when he got the Medal of Honor and went on bond tours.
“But he got tired of the hoopla,” Dortsch continued, “and he wanted to go back with the guys. He got the Navy Cross posthumously for Iwo Jima.
“It makes me sad to think about all the guys. I lost more than a thousand friends on Iwo Jima. I knew every man in the battalion by name. Our casualties were very high.”
It was on Iwo Jima that Dortsch suffered “quite a few bayonet wounds” during hand-to-hand combat and almost lost his left arm.
When Marines raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, he was on a Coast Guard hospital ship.
“We heard all the ships’ whistles going off and someone told me they just raised the flag. The doc took me up to the fantail and held up binoculars so I could see. But I couldn’t see. I couldn’t focus. But I knew they’d raised the flag. All the ships in the fleet were blowing their whistles and shooting off their guns.”
Doctors were treating Dortsch for bayonet wounds in both arms, his shoulder and his chest.
“I could smoke a cigarette and smoke would come out of the holes in my chest,” he said laughing. “The boys would laugh and come around me. They called me ‘Old Vesuvius’. The nurses would get mad and threaten to take away my cigarettes.
“Laughing – that’s all that keeps you going in tough times.”
He went from the ship to an Army hospital in Saipan and finally to a California Navy hospital to recover.
Yet, if he had to do it again, he “would rather go through another Iwo Jima than a Guadalcanal.”
Guadalcanal, he related, “was the most difficult experience of my life. We were without food and medical supplies, and often all out of ammunition.
“At Guadalcanal, most of our casualties were from disease, malaria, malnutrition. A breakdown physically. A breakdown from malnutrition. The Japanese called it Starvation Island. They were in as bad a shape as we were.”
Dortsch, who is 80 and living at the VA Extended Care and Rehabilitation Center in Prescott, joined the Marines when he was 19 and fresh out of high school.
After boot camp, he went through scout sniper school in Samoa and joined “Chesty Puller’s exciting Marine infantry when I heard they were going into combat into Guadalcanal.
“Puller was a Marine’s Marine,” Dortsch said grinning. “He had five Navy Crosses and was the most decorated man in the Marine Corps.”
In the heavy jungles of Guadalcanal, the Marines fought successfully to keep the high ground around an airfield “where we kept our fighter boys who kept the sea lanes open.”
One day the sick, hungry Marines learned that the Air Corps had bombed a Japanese transport convoy bringing Japanese army reinforcements to Guadalcanal.
“Most of the men got ashore with their heavy artillery so we knew we had a fight coming,” Dortsch said. “Those Japanese were dedicated guys. They carried their heavy artillery 50 miles through the jungle to attack our airfield.”
The Marines were spread out so thinly around the airfield that all Dortsch thought about that first night was going home to his family. He wasn’t sure he’d get the chance.
But the Marines prevailed. They killed about 1,000 Japanese troops during the first night of battle, then killed about 2,000 men the following night.
“They were starving,” the Marine said. “They were in as bad a shape as we were.”
In the tropical heat, dead bodies started rotting in about an hour, so the Marines used ammunition to blow holes in the ground and buried the Japanese in mass graves, he said.
“The smell of death is awful,” Dortsch said he remembers.
But the United States had to hold Guadalcanal to protect Australia from the Japanese.
“Guadalcanal was Australia’s life line,” the Marine said.
Dortsch spent five months on the Pacific island – from September 1942 until January 1943. Because the unit suffered so many casualties and so many men were sick, they went to Australia to regroup – get back into physical shape and get some new weapons. The malaria that he caught on Guadalcanal plagued him for three years.
Dortsch went to the Navy hospital in San Diego so doctors could treat a shoulder wound that wouldn’t heal.
After he healed, he went back into the Fleet Marine Force for more training.
“They filled the division as much as they could with combat veterans from all the Marine combats in the Pacific,” he said. “We had them from Tarawa and all of the places where the Marines had fought in the Pacific because they knew that Iwo Jima was going to be a tough nut to crack and they wanted experienced people.”
On the Coast Guard ship just off Iwo Jima, doctors at first thought that they should amputate his left arm, which was infected with gas gangrene.
“An Irish doctor named Murphy saved my left arm from amputation. It was real fine surgery. He had sewed the arteries, cleaned the veins and arteries and the arm came back. It was coal-black when I went to sleep and in the next three months it turned pink again and life came back into it.”
In a California hospital, doctors performed more surgery and Dortsch started a physical therapy regimen.
“I was able to start working my fingers and work my thumb so I could pull things with it. I loved Sally, the physical therapist, because she was such a good, dedicated person and if it hadn’t been for her, I never could have become a fighter pilot.”
Dortsch wanted to stay in the Marine Corps, but because of his disabilities they discharged him in 1946 when the war ended.
He went to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a fingerprint analyst.
“That is a great organization,” he said. “When I see bad press, it makes me feel bad. I know what dedicated people are there.”
While he worked for the FBI, Dortsch went to school and earned credits for three years of college.
He needed those college credits to qualify for pilot training. The Marines weren’t looking for pilots, so he joined the Air Force in 1949 and served through 1966.
In Korea, he served as a test pilot for Northrop Aviation and later trained fighter pilots in the Air Training Command. He flew combat missions early in the Vietnam War.
After his military service, Dortsch flew for Apache Airlines and for an aerial photography company.
“I tried to stay with aviation. That’s all I knew to make a living, And I loved it.”
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org
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